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Duma gives Putin power to sack governors

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MOSCOW — Russia's lower house of parliament gave President Vladimir Putin a mandate Friday to assume sweeping powers to sack elected officials, including regional governors, radically changing the way the country is ruled.

The State Duma passed the key second plank in Putin's three-part plan to tighten the Kremlin's grip on the world's largest country, giving Putin the power to sack the country's once-mighty regional governors if a court agrees.

The overwhelming vote — with 399 of 450 deputies supporting the measure and only nine opposing — ensures that the governors will be powerless to block the move. The Duma would need only 300 votes to override a veto from governors who now sit in the Federation Council upper house.

The bill lets the president sack governors for acts that a court determines violate federal laws or constitutional rights.

The Duma amended the bill to tighten the procedure for sacking governors, who are entitled to a warning and can reverse their illegal acts or appeal against a court's ruling at certain stages.

But Putin could have considerable political leeway in applying his new powers. Prosecutors have already drawn up a list of applicable violations in 60 of Russia's 89 regions, a sign that nearly any governor could become a target.

Putin's representative in parliament, Alexander Kotenkov, said the Duma's changes improved the bill and would make it less controversial.

Putin introduced three bills in all, calling for the deepest change to the way Russia is ruled since his predecessor Boris Yeltsin enacted the current constitution in 1993.

That document already gives the president virtually unlimited authority over the central government. But the weak point in Yeltsin's power was always the regions, where local bosses ruled with little regard for Moscow.

The first bill, which would strip the governors of their seats in the upper house of parliament passed last week in the Duma with a slimmer majority of 308 votes. It has already drawn the governors' veto, which the Duma can override next week.

Friday, the Duma also adopted a preliminary version of the third bill in Putin's package, giving higher officials powers to sack city mayors and other lesser officials. The bill still requires a third reading in the Duma and could be changed.

Putin has already acted to rein in the regions by dividing Russia into seven new super-districts and appointing a presidential representative, most of whom would come from the army or secret police, for each.

Political bargaining has continued over the bill stripping governors of seats in the upper house, with governors hoping the Duma will soften it rather than simply override their veto.

But Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, on a tour of southern Russia, said Putin wanted no changes to the bill, and Duma deputies have said Putin asked them to overturn the veto.

The Duma held out an olive branch to the governors on Friday, calling for the two houses of parliament to set up a conciliation commission to consider changes to the bill.

But Duma faction leaders have made clear they are prepared to overturn the governors' veto if they are snubbed, and NTV television said the offer of a conciliation commission "looks more like an ultimatum."

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leading pro-Putin deputy, said some amendments could be considered. These could include allowing governors to serve out current terms rather than quit parliament next year, or letting them name or recall the appointees who replace them without seeking approval from regional parliaments.

Along with parliamentary seats, the governors would lose their immunity from prosecution, and the Kremlin has suggested that some might be thrown in jail.